Along with tens of thousands of Blue Water Vietnam Veterans across New York State, a Brooklyn-born vet diagnosed with leukemia years after being exposed to powerful Agent Orange toxins during his service continues to be denied health care coverage by the Veterans Administration (VA). Due to a technicality in the law, 63 year-old Bobby Condon and his fellow "Blue Water Vets" are excluded from receiving federal coverage for their illnesses because they did not serve on the ground. The "boots on the ground" exclusion bars as many as 800,000 sailors and airmen in the United States - including at least 13,500 New York veterans - who may have still received significant Agent Orange exposure from receiving presumptive treatment. U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced legislation this week to ensure these veterans receive the health coverage they have earned.
Bobby Condon said, "The reason why I have the leukemia I have is because of what happened on that ship - Agent Orange caused the leukemia that I have. The government is saying no boots on the ground, no compensation. I thank Senator Gillibrand for championing on behalf of us."
"Because of technicality in the law, hundreds of thousands of American veterans are being denied the health care benefits they need and deserve," Senator Gillibrand said. "Our government must fulfill its commitment to the service members who have fallen victim to Agent Orange-related disease and enact new legislation that will provide our vets with the benefits they have earned. Agent Orange is a very difficult chapter in our nation's history. It is time that we correct the errors of the past."
At age 18, Bobby Condon left his home in Flatbush, Brooklyn to serve in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967. Nicknamed "Brooklyn" by fellow troops, Condon moved propeller planes and bomber jets on a flight deck aboard the USS Intrepid. The planes, which Condon often touched and handled, flew through Agent Orange fumes. In 1996 - twenty nine years after Condon's service - the Brooklyn native was diagnosed with throat cancer. In 2008, Condon was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Fortunately, Condon has health care through the NYPD pension fund. He is currently receiving treatment to decrease the risk of infections and taking regular blood tests at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital. But many Vietnam veterans may not have adequate insurance to treat their illnesses.
During the Vietnam war, the U.S. military sprayed approximately 20 million gallons of toxic chemicals known as Agent Orange to remove foliage, resulting in devastating effects for millions serving in Vietnam. Agent Orange contaminated water sources on ships and infected veterans onboard ships or aircraft that transported barrels of Agent Orange. The toxic chemical is behind a range of diseases, including increased change of developing serious heart problems, Parkinson's disease, blood and respiratory cancers, type II diabetes, and prostate cancer.
In 1991, Congress passed a law requiring the VA to cover all illnesses directly linked to Agent Orange exposure. However, in 2002 the VA determined that it would only cover Veterans with "boots on the ground," excluding Blue Water Navy Vets - veterans that were on duty in the air, land and sea around Vietnam. In 2005, the VA's former Director of Environmental Agents Service Dr. Mark Brown publicly acknowledged that there was no scientific basis for the exclusion of Blue Water Vietnam veterans, but the VA has continued to refuse these veterans the presumptive benefits Congress initially intended. In his article in the Journal of Law and Policy, Dr. Brown wrote, "Science does not back up the VA's policy on the Navy."
This week Senator Gillibrand introduced the Agent Orange Equity Act of 2009, which would clarify the existing law so that Blue Water veterans and every service member awarded the Vietnam Service medal would be fully covered by the VA. The bill would make it easier for the VA to process Vietnam War veterans' claims by extending the VA's coverage of Agent Orange benefits to all Vietnam veterans.
In addition, Senator Gillibrand also introduced legislation entitled the Agent Orange Children's Study (AOCS) that would require the VA to complete a study the effects Agent Orange has on the children of veterans exposed to Agent Orange. As part of the study, the Secretary of Veteran Affairs would review and evaluate available scientific evidence regarding associations between diseases in children, including multiple sclerosis and asthma, and the exposure of their parents to dioxin and other chemical compounds associated with Agent Orange.